Drugs

Why Colorado Is Leading the Country as a Future Hemp Producer

A series of happy accidents are behind the upcoming commercial hemp industry in Colorado.

Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

The following is an installment of Doug Fine's weekly column, Drug Peace Bumblebee.

I met the gray-haired, dignified Parker (and these qualities are important, as we’ll see), at the Aug. 1, 2013 official hemp flag-hoisting above the Colorado statehouse in Denver. The matriarch of hemp in the Rocky Mountain State was beaming here in the city where she lives and has worked for decades as a Yellow Pages directory sales rep.

“Farmers are planting, I consider this achieving the goal,” she told me.

What I discovered from the love Parker was being shown by the comparatively latter-day hemp activists that day at the statehouse was that Colorado’s farmers and entrepreneurs are leading the U.S. into the billion-dollar world industrial cannabis industry because of this single human being. It all happened because when Parker retired in 2005, she took a year off to decide what she wanted to do with her life. She knew only that “environmental values” comprised her criteria.

“I remember where I was when it came to me clear as day,” Parker told me as state police hoisted the flag made from the same material Betsy Ross used for the first American flag. “It was hemp in neon letters. Hemp was the biggest difference I could make for the planet as an individual.”

The now 63-year-old grandmother had no previous lobbying experience of any kind. And yet if this industry takes off as predicted (Canada can’t plant new hemp acreage fast enough to keep up with demand), there will be buildings named after her one day. That’s because, unlike Kentucky and Ohio, Colorado doesn’t have a traditional hemp industry.

“This is about rescuing wheat and corn farmers who are losing their soil due to monoculture ad climate change,” she told me. “About a modern cash crop in an expanding area for our agriculture industry.”

Parker’s backstory—and Colorado’s hemp headstart over the rest of the U.S.—reads like a Choose Your Own Adventurenovel. If a series of crucial happy accidents hadn’t happened, hemp cultivation wouldn’t be taking off in the state full bore in 2014 (regardless of federal law). To name one, 10 years before her post-retirement hemp catharsis, in 1996, Parker took a political science course and just happened to be assigned to cover the nation’s first modern hemp legalization bill (sponsored by Colorado State Senator Lloyd Casey, it failed to make it out of committee).

“Had I not taken that course, I would not be talking to you today, and this hemp flag wouldn’t be flying above the capital,” she said. In other words, hemp would probably not be legal in Colorado. 

From the class she learned how the legislative branch of government works. She used that knowledge a decade later, in 2006, when she spearheaded her first hemp initiative.

“The first thing I did was call my friend (Colorado state rep.) Suzanne Williams (D-South Aurora). I gave Suzanne my poli-sci class final paper, and asked, Can we revisit this issue?” She said, I think we should. She became my champion, introduced me around, put me in touch with not just elected officials, but the amazing and effective sustainability activist Mike Bowman. We pounded the hallways seemingly in vain for years. It was a lonely time.”

Mark these works carefully, ye who hath given up on representative democracy: after those few years of blank stares and giggles, Parker changed the hemp laws in a big state, in a time of supposed corporate control of government, nearly alone. She had no political experience. Her secrets?

“I love what I do, I dress conservatively, and I don’t give up.”

Not that she didn’t consider giving up, more than once.

“Oh, I told friends several times this is hopeless and nothing’s ever going to move through the lgislature on hemo. But Suzanne, Mike and I kept prodding and poking around to see where we could get an opening.”

An early opening came from north of the border.

“The Canadian consulate’s agriculture people in Denver were very helpful,” Parker told me. “By allowing us to use their conference room for meetings, they legitimized us. And they provided us with a huge amount of information about the hemp industry, which was really taking off for them. The Royal Canadian Mounted Police conferenced with Colorado law enforcement, telling them they had no problems with their industry. Zero. That helped get our law enforcement on board very early, which has proven very helpful.”

Still, Parker spent most of her time during those first years answering “can I smoke my drapes?” jokes from legislators.  

“It was frustrating—bills always dying in committee,” she said. “But we’d get little bursts of momentum, and by 2010 we were having serious conversations. I realized we were seeing a shift in the consciousness. We had educated the legislature.”

That year Colorado passed a resolution in support of hemp legalization that went out to the White House and Attorney General Eric Holder. “It was toothless, of course,” she said of that first victory. “But it stated the real issues farmers are facing—water shortages, debt, and the truth about hemp as a soil restorer and cash crop.”

Was Parker’s age and buttoned-down sales experience an asset? “I don’t think there’s any question,” she said, her hair prim and her sweater buttoned. “I am a mainstream face for hemp. It doesn’t get any more mainstream than a gray-haired lady who sells Yellow Pages advertising. No one was threatened by me.”

Hemp’s first actual legislative victory in Colorado came in 2012. With the help of activists Jason Lauvre and Erik Hunter, Parker’s posse saw unanimous passage of a hemp phyto-remediation (soil restoration) bill, HB12-1099. Then came another huge unexpected boost, a chapter in the Colorado Hemp Choose Your Own Adventure.

“Years ago,” Parker explained. “I had told Brian Vicente (one of the leaders of the successful Amendment 64 voter initiative that legalized all forms of cannabis in Colorado in November 2012) that I didn’t want to be active in the psychoactive side, since legislators were just starting to understand hemp. And yet he still included hemp in that initiative. I bow down to him in thanks for that whenever I see him.”

To codify the will of the people on that count, the legislature, again with near-unanimity (one senator thought the bill too restrictive) passed a bill on May 24, 2013 that will allow commercial cultivation of hemp in Colorado regardless of federal law. State officials plan to have hemp cultivation guidelines in place for the 2014 season, regardless of federal law, and several farmers have told me they will be planting.

 “A big part of why the state moved so fast is Colorado farmers said we’re doing it,” Parker told me. “They don’t need DEA approval.” As for federal legalization of hemp nationwide, she said, “The momentum is utterly unstoppable.”

So what’s the message for activists in any cause? Parker had so many suggestions, it was as though she had waited her whole life for the question.

“There has to be that level of maturity,” she began. “Include the people you think will resist. Most of the time your supposed enemies just don’t understand. Always take the high road, no matter how weird it gets—and it gets weird in politics. And most of all, try to have fun along the way. Looking back on it, I can truly say it’s been totally fun.”

Ya know, nearly single-handedly creating what looks to be a billion-dollar industry for your state’s farmers. Not a bad thing to check off one’s bucket list.